Oh, Canada: The Canadian Soccer Federation fights the Powers That Be

Fight the CSA

Perhaps it was the decision of Feyenoord’s talented Jonathan de Guzman, native of Scarborough, Ontario, to represent the Netherlands instead of Canada that was the final straw. Much more likely, it was the years of bumbling mismanagement by the bumpkins at the Canadian Soccer Association. But whatever the proximate cause, a Canadian soccer revolution is underway.

We first reported on protests by hundreds of Canadian soccer fans against their association last summer at a friendly against Costa Rica, a black shirt-clad grassroots movement for change.

On August 28th Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) president Colin Linford resigned, a decision that brought Canadian supporters back to reality. The CSA is essentially a federation run by volunteers who oversee a $14-million business. When Linford resigned he said a culture of amateurism prevailed and the only way to save the federation was to disband the CSA.

This leads us to the Canada-Costa Rica friendly at the National Soccer Stadium this week. Canadian national team supporter group, the Voyageurs, began to post on their message board about organizing some kind of protest for the match. The goal was to bring attention to the failings of the CSA yet not take anything away from the team on the pitch.

Slowly other groups began to be involved. Toronto FC supporter groups, U-Sector and Red Patch Boys among others, spread word /of a protest. “Black Wednesday” was the name of the action and the goal was to cover the stands in mourning black. The result was hundreds of black T-shirts printed up with the slogan “Support our national teams – Sack the CSA.” The shirts sold for $5, just enough to recoup the cost of production.

The main goal of the protest was to get people talking about reform and in this the supporters can claim Wednesday’s action a success as the protest made news nationwide. Canadian supporters realize the revolution won’t happen overnight but the grassroots passion and desire for change is as strong as ever.

Ben Knight, writing in the The Globe and Mail, elaborated on the CSA’s history of failure this week.

According to statistics sent out by the CSA last week, Canada now has well over 800,000 registered soccer players. Relative to population, that’s a stunningly high number.

The problem – as highlighted by young Canadian Jonathan de Guzman’s headline-making decision last week to play for the Netherlands instead – is there is no reliable, efficient, non-political way to guide the very best of those players to places on Canada’s national soccer teams.

I’ve been on the Canadian soccer beat for eight years. In that time, the CSA has hurt far more than it has helped.

Early in the decade, it was mired in a misguided, impractical plan to launch a new coast-to-coast pro loop, the Canadian United Soccer League. Organizers had significant sponsorship money lined up – but only if they could sign up eight owners and a national television deal. They couldn’t. Turned out most of the energy was funnelled into an “affinity card” scheme, that would essentially direct-market to Canada’s soccer parents, offering modest discounts in exchange for enduring an ongoing advertising blitz.

When the CUSL’s numbers man, Toronto Lynx head honcho Bruno Hartrell, quit because he didn’t like or believe the numbers, he was vilified in the press. He was also right.

In 2001, the CSA hooked up with then-federal sports minister Denis Corderre to launch a bid to host the 2010 men’s World Cup. This, again, was a ridiculous over-reach. McMahon Stadium in Calgary was never going to be Anfield, no matter how much scarce Canadian soccer money was wasted on the presentation.

By mid-decade, however, things were turning up for Canada on the world soccer stage. A hugely successful hosting of the Women’s Under-19 World Cup led directly to FIFA funding of the initial stages of what turned out to be BMO Field in Toronto. The Men’s Under-20 was soon awarded to Canada – and Toronto FC appeared out of nowhere, just to put some extra-scrumptious icing on the cake.

But how much of that was really down to the CSA? Andy Sharpe was president then, and he gets full credit from me for steering away from the CUSL and World Cup bid. But when you look at the chronic bureaucratic paralysis that has engulfed the CSA – really since Canada’s only World Cup appearance in 1986 – it becomes clear it was the power and resources of others – FIFA, CONCACAF, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Toronto Mayor David Miller – that were primarily responsible for the happy harvest of soccer miracles 2007 became.

Once Sharpe was gone, the CSA collapsed into chaos. Internal bickering and Titanic-like intransigence of its board of directors – which includes representatives (and bickering, conflicting agendas) from all the provinces – has left the CSA with no president, no technical director, no CEO, and on the hook for a big (unspecified) settlement to former executive Fred Nykamp, who was lured away from his old job at Basketball Canada, only to be dumped to the curb without serving a single day in office.

Last week, the CSA sent out a release asking for public feedback on the strategic overhaul it intends to unveil this May. The document included no specific changes, but we’ve heard it’s likely the provincial reps will be amalgamated into five regional board members. It’s a step towards streamlining, but it still ends up being the same people, with a new spin on all the old problems.

An alternative emerged just days ago, as the Canadian Soccer Federation launched themselves on the internets in opposition to the CSA. Their “Way Forward” PDF, found on their new website, is a nice touch: the second page features a litany of quotes from Canadian soccer players, the media and FIFA on the disastrous CSA leadership (Jason Devos, former Canadian captasin: “It’s a shambles. Let’s make no bones about it; it’s a complete and utter shambles”; Bruce Twamley, former Canadian international: “Whatever success we have is despite the CSA…The sport relies on spin doctors whose role is to make the situation sound better than it is.”)

The document, relying largely on a report prepared by Deloitte & Touche for the Canadian Soccer Association three years ago that it had kept private, outlines the failure of leadership despite the grassroots enthusiasm for the sport. Judging from this discussion on the Voyageurs forum involving a founder of the CSF, they have a long-term vision to connect the grassroots with the highest level of the game.

It is my belief that a healthy grassroots, guided by unified standards established by the national association, will give us a better shot at long term success at all levels than the mess we have right now. It is easy to blame “soccer moms” for the reasons why the MNT doesn’t have sufficient funding but that is overly simplistic. The grassroots are at odds with all levels of soccer administration i this country because they feel that they are being treated as nothing more than an ATM machine for the districts, provinces and the CSA.

It’s ambitious and obviously the CSF is at a nascent stage. They will be holding a town hall meeting on February 28 to discuss their plans. It seems something dramatic needs to be done to shake-up Canadian soccer, so let’s help this leads to a healthy debate and a brighter future for the game there.

Photo credit: mdc77 on Flickr

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